Jeremiah 17:9 is one of the most familiar prophecies of Jeremiah. There Jeremiah prophesies, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick…” These words are a part of a larger prophecy against Judah and her sin in which Jeremiah differentiates between a man and his life that trusts in the Lord and one who doesn’t. The preceding verses read, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. he is like a tee planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
Jeremiah’s point is simple: The man who trusts in the Lord has life and bears fruit while living that life even in drought; the man who doesn’t trust the Lord has a deceitful heart and withers away while bearing no good fruit. Jesus takes this same image and applies it to the Scribes and Pharisees (the Religious Leaders) in Mark 7.
Hypocrites and Their Traditions
The Scribes and Pharisees noticed that some of his disciples did not follow the Jewish ceremonial and ritual traditions regarding the washing of hands, utensils, and furniture (7:2-4). They had a problem with this. So, they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” That was a mistake! Jesus seized this opportunity to rebuke and correct them and to defend his disciples (7:6-23).
The long and short of Jesus’ response is that the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites, and they were “hypocrites for two reasons: (1) their actions are merely external and do not come from their hearts, which are far from God; and (2) their teachings are not from God but reflect the tradition of men” (ESV Study Bible). Let me briefly explain.
Mere External Actions
Jesus applied Isaiah’s prophetic words about hypocrisy to the scribes and Pharisees of his day (7:6-7). In doing this, he claimed that the scribes and Pharisees were concerned with drawing near to God through external action rather than heart humility. They wanted to please men and God with their external actions, but they were full of deceit and pride. They were not interested in humbly relying upon God. Behavior modification was their way “to get” to God. But, behavior modification without heart change will not work. The real problem is the nature of our hearts before God, not our behaviors. Behavior flows from the heart.
Teachings of Men not God
Because the scribes and Pharisees were so concerned with behavior modification and ensuring that they stood right before God in their actions, they had a tendency to elevate the teachings and traditions of their forefathers to the same place as the teachings of God. What were supposed to be interpretations, applications, and traditions derived from God’s law had become equal to God’s law itself. They had allowed the teachings and traditions of man to usurp those of God.
A Dangerous Position
This is a very dangerous position to be in and to hold. Not only are the traditions of men not the same as God’s Word and therefore useless in cleansing our hearts, they also lead to a disregard of God’s Word. As they replace God’s Word in our hearts and lives, they lead us away from it all together. This is a REAL danger! Confusion abounds in our lives about what is actually required of God and what is not, about what is God’s Word and what is not. We must be careful that we do not follow in the footsteps of the Scribes and Pharisees by confusing the Word of God and the traditions of men and that we do not buy into the notion that external religion is the same as “heart-changing” Christianity.
God reveals himself fully to us in Jesus Christ. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,” and the one through whom God has “spoken” to us “in these last days” (Hebrews 1:1-5). This is true not just of Jesus’ words (revealing to us the will of God for salvation) but also of his heart, his character, and his actions. He is the perfect representation of God to us because he is God.
When we read the Gospels, we see this revelation of God in Christ clearly. The stories, the teachings, the interactions, the miracles of Jesus all combine to give us a clear understanding of who God is and the nature of his kingdom. As I read Mark 6, I thought of this revelatory purpose of Jesus and his kingdom as he commissions disciples to go on his behalf, is rejected in Nazareth, feeds the hungry people, walks on water, and heals the sick. But, I took particular interest in the feeding of the 5,000 (6:30-44). I want to make two observations.
“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…” (6:34).
Jesus and his disciples had traveled by boat to a desolate place in order to rest, eat leisurely, and decompress after a tumultuous experience taking the gospel into the villages of the region. They wanted to get away. They wanted to spend a little time together. They wanted to get their bearings straight. But, the hordes of people who followed Jesus — who desperately desired something from him — would not allow it. They ran ahead and met Jesus and his disciples as they disembarked on the shore. When Jesus saw them he had compassion on them. He did not turn them away. He gave them what they needed. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. He ministered grace to them. Though he was tired, though he wanted to spend time alone with his disciples, he took time to care for the people and did not turn them away. He treats you and me the same way.
The Kingdom Illustrated
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people…And they all ate and were satisfied” (6:41-42).
In 4:30-32, Mark records a parable that Jesus taught about a mustard seed. He says that they kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds; yet, it grows to be the largest plant in all the garden, so large that it has room enough for all the nests of the birds of the air. The point of the parable is to illustrate the exponential growth of the kingdom of God in the lives of men and women. When Jesus feeds the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, he illustrates this parable. These few and simple loaves and fish, barely enough for one person after a long day’s journey, became enough to feed 5,000 men and their families with the miraculous touch of Jesus. Jesus uses the smallest and most ordinary things to accomplish his great and extraordinary kingdom purposes.
Compassion and Kingdom Today
The takeaways from this story are simple — Jesus has compassion on all those who come to him, and Jesus does the extraordinary with ordinary things that are dedicated to his kingdom in faith. Seek to find ways to apply these two truths to your life today. Run to and press into the one who is full of compassion and grace. Look for the extraordinary and exponential growth of Christ’s kingdom in your life. Praise God for his work.
Authority is the one word that continually comes to mind as I read the first half of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has ultimate authority, and Mark demonstrates his authority with the stories he choses and the way in which he records them. The ESV Study Bible notes,
“The first half of Mark’s Gospel is dedicated to the demonstration of Jesus’ authority over sickness, laws of nature, and the demonic world. He also calls, appoints, and sends out his disciples while regularly teaching in a unique and authoritative way” (Note on Mark 1:16-8:26).
Along with this ultimate authority, Jesus has ultimate power, which is “the ability to act, or capability of doing or accomplishing something.” Jesus doesn’t simply have authority over sickness, laws of nature, and the demonic world, he also has the power to control and use them for his purposes.
Mark illustrates this beautifully in three stories that begin at the tail end of chapter 4 and continue through chapter 5. Jesus calms the wind and the waves. He casts out demons from a man in the Garasenes. He healed an unclean woman. And, he brought Jairus’s daughter back to life.
As the Son of God he had the authority to do these things. He is sovereign over all. There is no real argument against that if what Jesus says about himself is true. If he’s God, then he is THE AUTHORITY. There is no adequate or legitimate challenger, for there is only one God. But, he also had the power to enter into the forces of nature and calm them. He had the power to cast out the demons from the man. He had the power to heal a woman who had been sick for 12 years. He had the power to bring a young girl from death to life.
You see, in each of these stories, Jesus had the authority to command. He commanded the wind and waves. He commanded the demons. He commanded the life the of the young girl. And, because of his authority they were bound to listen. That is awesome! What kind of God is this? Isn’t that what the disciples asked while in the boat? “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him” (4:41)?
But, he also had the power to make those things listen and to bring about the change he desired. He said, “Be still.” and they were still. He said, “Come out.” and they came out. He said, “Arise.” and she arose. He had the authority to command it, and he had the power to make it happen.
The Challenge for Me in the 21st Century
If I’m honest with myself (and you), then I have to say that, though I love the fact that Jesus has ultimate power, I struggle with his authority. I want a God who can step into the realms of nature, demons, and brokenness and bring about peace, freedom, healing, restoration. Who doesn’t? I love Jesus’ power. However, I want to direct that power. Don’t you? I want to be the one to determine when, where, how, and in whose life Jesus uses that power. I want to be the authority, and I really don’t want to be subjected to his. But, that’s not how it works. He is the authority and he is the power. That’s a good thing because he is benevolent and omniscient. I’m not. He has the plan to bring about his glory and my ultimate good according to his divine purposes (Romans 8:28). I don’t.
So, my challenge is to submit to his authority in my life as well as rely upon his power. When I’m tempted to broker his power without his authority, I must repent and submit to him in faith. I challenge you to do the same.
Jesus was a teacher, and he did a lot of teaching. He taught his disciples. He taught the crowds that followed him. He taught the Pharisees and the scribes. And, the subject matter he taught was always the same — the kingdom of God. Regardless of his teaching method — parables, direct instruction, interpretation and explanation of the Law, follow up on miracles — he always came back to the glory of God in his kingdom.
Like the other Gospel writers, Mark gives us a variety of accounts in which Jesus did his teaching. One such account is found in chapter 4. It is Mark’s parable chapter. He gives us four parables that deal with and explain the kingdom of God. The first is “the parable of the sower” where a man sows seed and it either grows and bears fruit or doesn’t. The second has to do with a lamp being placed on a stand, not under a basket or bed, so as to shine light on everything in the room. The third parable Jesus tells is “the parable of the seed growing.” The man sows the seed, but yet the earth brings the growth. Though the man does not know how this growth happens, he does not doubt it or question it; rather, he accepts and celebrates it. And, the fourth is a parable in which Jesus illustrates the kingdom of God which begins in a small unnoticed, overlooked way (like a mustard seed) but grows into the greatest and most lasting kingdom the world has or will ever know (like a cedar of Lebanon). There is a lot to learn from these great parables.
By grouping them the way that he did, Mark united the parables under a common theme — kingdom fruitfulness. When the kingdom of God (the active reign of God) is alive and active in the lives of men and women, it produces fruit. It brings about heart change. It brings about life change. It is easily demonstrable in the lives of those who have submitted to Christ and come into his kingdom in faith. There is no exception. When the seed takes root and grows in divinely prepared soil, it grows and produces fruit. Period. The amount of fruit — the measure of the fruit — varies from person to person. In some it produces 30-fold, in others, 60, and in others, 100 (4:8). It’s that simple. Though we may not all produce the same amount of fruit, we produce fruit nonetheless.
Bear Some Fruit Today
I want to challenge you (and I always include myself in these challenges) to bear gospel fruit today. If the gospel has taken root in your life, then you should be bearing kingdom fruit. So, here’s the challenge:
Great crowds followed Jesus throughout his ministry. People came from all over the ancient world to see him — to see his miracles, to hear his teaching, to touch him, to look him in the eyes. They wanted to know what he was all about. They wanted to know just who he was. They wanted healing. They wanted wholeness. They wanted to be fixed.
Mark tells us about such a crowd in chapter 3 (verses 7-12). This crowd of people came from villages far and wide to see Jesus — from “Galilee and Jerusalem and Idumea and Tyre and Sidon” (3:8). And, when they found him, they pressed in upon him so closely that he was concerned they would crush him. Mark tells us that they did this because they were desperate. They wanted to be healed, to have their diseases taken away, and to touch him. (Jesus was a rock star to them.) Many of them received wonderful physical and emotional blessings as he responded to them in grace by healing them and casting out demons.
On the surface this is a great story. People have come to Jesus, and he has healed them. It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? But, it’s too good to be true (That’s cliche, I know; so, please forgive me).
A Crowd of Users
Notice again what Mark tells us about the crowd. The majority of them have come because they had “heard all that he was doing,” which was healing men, women, and children of diseases and casting out demons. They came to Jesus because of what he could do for them. Now, that’s not a bad motivation necessarily. But, it appears that for those in the crowd that was the sole motivation for which they came to Jesus, and it never got any deeper. They came, got their benefits, got their healing, and then left. They wanted something from Jesus, and when they got it, they left. They fell away. What they wanted were the benefits of Jesus in their life, but not Jesus himself. Their ultimate goal was to make themselves better, and Jesus was the means to do it.
Sadly, this is not a reality that remained with the scores of people who “came to” Jesus while he walked on earth. Many people still come to Jesus for the same reason. They want to make much of themselves and use Jesus to do it. They presume that because Jesus is gracious and merciful that he will gladly respond to their request and be at their beckoning call. Therefore, they come when they “need” him and drift away when they don’t. He’s the agent to make their life better, not the Lord of glory to whom they submit their lives. That’s a different mindset than that of those whom he calls to follow him as disciples.
A Band of Followers
If I could draw your attention back to the text for just a moment, I think you’ll see how Mark fleshes this out clearly. Look at verse 13 again. Jesus takes his disciples, “those whom he desired,” up on a mountain where he appointed them as those who “might be with him and he might send them out to preach.” What a difference! The crowd comes to receive or take the benefits of Christ. They come to better themselves. The disciples come to Jesus for him — to make much of Jesus, to better his fame in the world. They go out to preach; they go out to cast out demons for Jesus’ sake. They come to Jesus (because he called them) to get Jesus. They want to be with him, and go out with him and for him. And, they receive in full the benefits of Christ. Where the crowd received in part, they received in full.
A Member of the Crowd or a Follower of Jesus
Here’s the question I come to in chapter three: How often am I simply a member of the crowd instead of a follower of Christ? In other words, how do I come to Jesus just for his benefits? How often is it my desire to dimly get those benefits and then walk away from him, only to come back later for more benefits?
It’s a tendency we all have. Be focused today on examining your heart’s motivation. Do you come to Jesus for Jesus or for his benefits? If it’s not for Jesus, then you need to take some time to repent and to come to him in faith. Make him and his glory the motivation of your life and all the other benefits will flow freely.
Mark’s Gospel is action packed. He has little time for transition or editorial notes that provide further explanation for the life and stories of Jesus. This, I believe, is because he is interested in getting us to the cross of Christ quickly so as to devote proper time to the climax of Jesus’ story (6 of 16 chapters are devoted to Jesus’ last week of life), and he wants to do it with brevity (something from which I could learn).
Chapter 2 contains fours stories — Jesus and the paralytic, Jesus and Levi, Jesus and the question of fasting, and Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath. All of these stories combine to give us an understanding of Jesus’ true and divine identity. This is important. Because Mark does not begin with a birth narrative (like Matthew and Luke) or a theological treatise of his eternality (like John), he has to introduce Jesus as God through stories that tell of his works and his interactions with men and women.
Four Stories and Four Divine Claims
1. Jesus Forgives Sins (2:1-12) — Only God can forgive sins. Why? because the only one who can forgive sins is the one against whom the sins were committed. According to Psalm 51 all sins are committed against God — “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” Therefore, God alone has the authority, power, and right to forgive sins. By claiming that right for himself, Jesus claims to be God. To prove this claim to be true, Jesus performed a miracle of healing.
2. Jesus Calls Sinners to Himself (2:13-17) — Again God is the only who draws sinners to himself through grace and forgiveness. In Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in verse 17, Jesus says that he didn’t come to call “the righteous, but sinners.” This language indicates that sinners are those he calls to himself which they do, based on Levi’s (Matthew) story, is through faith in him and repentance. That is something the Bible reserves for God alone. He is the one who calls people to come to him in faith and repentance by a result of his grace and forgiveness.
3. Jesus Authors and Perfects a New Religion (2:18-22) — The author of Hebrews calls Jesus “the author and perfecter of our faith” (12:2). Jesus’ conversation with John’s disciples illustrates this reality well. He fulfilled the Old Testament moral and ceremonial law perfectly. In so doing, he ushered in a new, open, and full relationship with God which was not possible prior to his coming. That is something only God can do because he sets the standard of relationship with him, and he is the only one who can meet his standards.
4. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (2:23-28) — The command to keep the Sabbath day holy is much older than Mt. Sinai. It goes back to Creation — “On the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested one the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (2:2). Since God established the Sabbath day by resting after his work of Creation, only he can be Lord of it — only he can define what is appropriate on that day and what is not. Therefore, by claiming to be Lord of Sabbath, Jesus claims to be God.
Who Is Jesus to You?
Each of the four Gospels ultimately forces you and me to answer the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” Is he God, or is he not? If he is who he claims to be, then he is worthy of submitting your life to him. That’s Mark’s point. Jesus is God. Will you follow him? That’s a great question for you to answer daily.
We start reading the Mark today. And, I’m excited. I love Mark! I don’t really know why I do; I just do. I pray you will learn to love it as well.
As a Gospel writer, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In this way he is very much like Matthew, Luke, and John. Like them, he wants us to know the story of Jesus. But, Mark goes about telling this story in a different way than his counterparts. They build Jesus’ story on a firmly laid foundation of family and genealogical roots (Matthew and Luke) or of theological understanding (John). Mark does none of that. He jumps right in. He doesn’t have time for introductory material because he wants to introduce the story’s hero to us. That’s all he cares about — Jesus: who he is and why he came. So, he starts at the beginning, the actual beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
The Beginning of the Gospel
Mark opens his Gospel with a familiar sentence — “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This sentence holds the key to understanding Mark’s purpose and to rightly interpreting the Gospel as Mark records it. This key is found in the word “gospel.”
“Gospel” is not a new word for most of us. We have some type of understanding of its meaning. We would probably say, when asked what “gospel” means, something along the lines of “the good news of Jesus Christ.” We may even define it more in terms of a message, i.e., the Christian gospel. And, we would be right. That’s a satisfactory and workable definition of “gospel.”
Mark, however, takes it deeper and gives it a more personal meaning. When Mark uses “gospel” he connects it to God’s faithful fulfillment of his promises to save his people from their sins and to restore them to a right relationship with himself and each other by miraculously and graciously intervening in their lives in an act of salvation. This act, this faithful fulfillment of God’s promises centers on the life of Jesus, but more than that, it is Jesus himself. Jesus is the gospel. It’s more than a story; it’s more than a message; it’s Jesus!
Reading Mark and Living Life Appropriately
In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul writes that we (Christians) are united to Christ Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection through faith. We are, then, living the gospel. It’s not just the knowledge of a story (though knowledge is important), or the acceptance of a message. It is a life lived in union with Jesus through faith. As you read Mark, think about it in those terms. Read it in a way that understands that Jesus is the gospel, and we are united to him through faith. Life with Jesus is the blessing of the gospel. Live that out today.
Take a walk around your town, around your work place, and look for a divine opportunity to touch someone with the grace and mercy of God. Look for a divine opportunity to speak a gentle word of encouragement or truth to someone. Look for a divine opportunity to pray for someone, and then tell them that you prayed for them.